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Quick, while there's still time, let's organize a search party. We'll be hunting for something that surely has to be out there somewhere, even if no one has yet been able to locate it: an actual economic program for either George Bush or Michael Dukakis.

Not since Jimmy Carter flashed us a broad grin and urged, "Trust me," have the American people been given so little guidance as to how their future leader actually intends to proceed on the biggest issues facing the country.Clearly, this has to have been inadvertent. These men must have a specific plan or two hidden away somewhere. My suspicion is that, in the heat of campaign activities, this plan has merely become temporarily mislaid. The job of the search party will be to find at least one, and possibly even two, genuine economic programs sometime between now and Nov. 8.

Cynics claim that this absence of visible policy is deliberate. They note that when nominees have been foolish enough to reveal detailed intentions, as when Walter Mondale plumped for a tax increase or Barry Goldwater suggested that Social Security might have financing problems, the public reaction was distinctly inhospitable. People don't want to hear that kind of thing in a presidential campaign, these observers maintain; it's upsetting, and spoils the mood of raucous partisan cheering.

But I can't believe that two solid citizens like Bush and Dukakis - fellows whose worst enemies would not deny that these are essentially "decent" chaps - are holding back for such a shabby, self-serving reason. More likely, they just can't remember where they put that darned economic policy, anyhow.

Why, they have been speaking out boldly and without hesitation on other issues. I know for certain how each of them feels about drugs (he's against it) and child care (he's for it). Fellows who are willing to bite the bullet on controversial questions like those are not going to hold back on a little thing like the federal budget, are they?

Just for starters, in fact, each has already told us that he thinks the deficit is too large. Dukakis came right out and said he was against "government by credit card," and Bush called the deficit "public enemy No. 1." So you see, these guys are willing to take on the real hot potatoes, after all. (What's that? You don't know any group of voters on the other side, demanding an even bigger deficit? Ssshhh - go back to Russia where you belong.)

It's precisely how they intend to reduce the deficit that still seems shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Dukakis, for example, has proposed several billion dollars in new domestic programs, which to the untutored observer might not seem like a marvelous plan for balancing the budget.

Moreover, while the Massachusetts governor is surrounded by advisers just aching to raise your taxes again, he has been notably wary of saying anything intelligible in that area. Dukakis' big specific is that he wants the IRS to collect more of the taxes that are due, but if you think that alone will do the job I have some valuable swampland to offer you at a bargain price. After all, this guy has taught at Harvard; he must have something more substantial secreted in his arsenal of future policy.

Bush, for his part, is concealing the ultimate resolution of his identity crisis: Reagan's man, or Bush's, and if the latter, what does that mean? The Vice President rebounded from defeat in Iowa to victory in New Hampshire by taking a tough line against tax increases, but his economic advisers are now heavily weighted to the "pragmatic" side, and you know what that usually means. Besides, while he's been notably vague on where he would restrain spending, Bush has occasionally given signs of being willing to compete with Dukakis on promises for new federal funding.

Obviously, all this confusion has been created by the unfortunate mislaying of the two candidates' actual, detailed economic programs - which will make clear precisely what they would change, what they would keep and where they are heading. The search party will meet at my place today at noon, and with any luck the country will be safe by nightfall.